The following editorial appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Monday, Nov. 23:
Secrecy rarely produces sound public policy, nor does it foster public trust, as the recently completed Trans-Pacific Partnership demonstrates. After shutting the doors on labor unions, environmental groups, privacy advocates and others with a stake in the discussions, President Barack Obama wants Congress to approve a regional trade deal that sacrifices too much.
In fairness, there’s a lot to like in the deal, but not enough.
Obama stresses that the partnership, involving the United States and 11 other nations, streamlines and formalizes trade in a part of the world where greater predictability is desirable. That’s the good part.
The administration’s sales pitch so far has focused on the elimination of 18,000 tariffs that Pacific Rim nations place on U.S. goods, a move that’s expected to strengthen the standing of beleaguered American workers and generate much-needed economic growth here. Easier access to markets means greater opportunity for exporting American goods.
“When it comes to Asia, one of the world’s fastest-growing regions, the rule book is up for grabs,” Obama said. “And if we don’t pass this agreement — if America doesn’t write those rules — then countries like China will. And that would only threaten American jobs and workers and undermine American leadership around the world.”
There’s little disputing the risk of letting China set the course, but critics of TPP are building a persuasive case that the deal still leaves far too much to chance, or to deliberate deception, in the name of free trade.
A major point of contention is the inclusion of an Investor-State Dispute Settlement, or ISDS, a process that enables foreign corporations to challenge a nation’s laws before an international court if they think they impinge too much on shareholder value.
Although the mechanism exists in other agreements in which the United States already participates, TPP critics — such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. — point to a spike in such challenges in recent years. A French company is battling a minimum-wage increase in Egypt, a Swedish company is fighting Germany over limits on nuclear power, and America’s Philip Morris is challenging stricter tobacco regulations in Uruguay.
Those courts are skewed toward corporations to the detriment of individuals and workers. Making them a cornerstone of trade in the Pacific is a mistake.
Other parts of the deal also are drawing opposition. Human Rights Watch and others contend that bilateral agreements with Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia over human rights and workers’ rights are toothless. Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club are incensed that the words “climate change” appear nowhere in the document and that fossil-fuel companies could use ISDS to undermine efforts to address global warming.
Two aspects of TPP — involving privacy rights and intellectual property rights — are particularly worrisome.
The deal seeks to strengthen the ability of countries to crack down on commercial digital espionage, but privacy advocates are skeptical of provisions that encourage TPP’s participating countries to allow a freer flow of data between borders.
If governments are limited in their ability to require local data storage, critics say, digital information may be end up being more vulnerable to hackers and to surveillance by other countries, including U.S. intelligence agencies. “Trade agreements are not the place to decide digital policy,” says Maira Sutton, global policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Pharmaceutical companies are at the center of a debate in the partnership over intellectual property rights. Doctors Without Borders and others oppose patent protections that would impede the growth of lower-cost generic drugs. TPP would give companies eight years of protection, which is four fewer than now, but it would ease the extension of patents through “new uses.”
The common thread in all of these complaints is that the criticism emanates from public interest groups prevented from stating their case to TPP negotiators as the deal was put together. If they had been involved in the negotiations, the problems might have been avoided or at least tempered.
Instead, negotiators chose secrecy. The Obama administration contends that was necessary to coax reluctant nations to compromise and put their best proposals on the table, but the tradeoff obviously generated distrust and left TPP open to accusations that corporations drove the details.
Obama, who won a hard-fought battle to win “fast-track approval” of trade deals, now faces a straight up-or-down vote by Congress. Lawmakers should demand better.
Congress’ role in trade deals is to represent the American people, to serve as a check on the White House. The president deserves some deference in negotiating, but not unilateral authority.
This administration was not tough enough and gave up too many protections that Americans deserve in a trade deal. Missouri’s senators and representatives should work with their colleagues to reject this TPP so that the next administration can negotiate something better.
(c)2015 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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